Drawing Restraint 9

By Douglas Singleton

Surely there is nothing more disgusting than a recently married and newly procreating art couple collaborating on an abstruse conceptual project about the beauty and wonderment of physical connection, love, and the intermixing of the two in flexing the corporeal, creative muscle. But that is exactly
what installation artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney and pop chanteuse Björk have done with the highly anticipated
Drawing Restraint 9 film project.

Part of a continuous project undertaken by Barney since the 1980s, the Drawing Restraint "cycle" centers around the idea that physical resistance to muscles makes them grow stronger as a result of a thickening of muscle fiber process called hypertrophy. Barney's project proposes that resistance is a prerequisite for the gestation and development of creativity. Early installments found the artist attempting to "draw" under forms of stress and resistance—running up an incline while pulling against an attached elastic band, on a ceiling while jumping from a mini-trampoline, and in Drawing Restraint 7, portraying satyrs aggressively wrestling each other in the back seat of a cab whisking through Manhattan, to earn the honor of fashioning a sketch with moisture on the car's sun roof. All of this was undergone in order to inject energy and life into the creative (drawing) process.

The Drawing Restraint 9 chapter translates the idea of strength through confrontation to love, and draws inspiration from Japanese culture, its essence "the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity, rebirth, physical transformation, and the possibility of new forms." Comprised of sculpture, photography, music, and film, the entire Drawing Restraint project was presented this past summer at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan (and this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art), all culminating with a screening of Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 film collaboration with wife Björk.

Stills from the film present a ravaging display of stark, odd, overpowering imagery set on a Japanese whaling ship off Nagasaki Bay. The protean Barney and Björk themselves play "The Guests", two western visitors taken on board the ship, bathed, groomed, and clothed in mammal fur garments based upon traditional Shinto marriage costumes.

During a ritual tea ceremony in which the Guests are informed of the history of the vessel, a lightning storm breaks out overhead and the ship floods with liquid vaseline—a common staple of mythic Barney symbology. The transformation of a sculpture of vaseline on the deck of the boat, referred to as "The Field", is poured, molded, bisected and reformed over the course of the film. Shifts in the structure of this sculpture are mirrored by transformations in the Guests themselves.

A spectacular climax finds the Guests locked in embrace and breathing through blowhole orifices on the back of their necks. They use flensing knives to cut away each other's feet and thighs, and their remaining body sections reveal traces of the early stages of whale tail development—suggesting physical transformation. The vaseline sculpture is reorganized and the ship emerges from the storm into an open ocean, two whales swimming behind it—gooey, freaky stuff.

Björk provides an ambient musical backdrop for all of these shenanigans, concentrating on traditional Japanese music forms, specifically the sho, one of Japanese culture's oldest instruments. With multiple reeds and many distinct pipes, the sho's dense harmonies reflect nimble fingering that block and silence particular notes in order to produce clusters of sounds. This practice reflects Drawing Restraint 9's thematic patterns: the relationship between creativity and resistance. Released earlier last year, the soundtrack features Mayumi Miyata, one of the world's foremost sho players, who herself appears in the film. Providing counterpoint are ongoing Björkian collaborations with Tagaq, Will Oldham, and Valgeir Sigursson.

Screened last summer at the Reykjavik Film Festival in Björk's native Iceland, in addition to the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Drawing Restraint 9 promises bizarre, creepy, ravishingly beautiful filmmaking, just what one would expect from Barney. His infamous Cremaster films, full of cryptic mythology both personal and historical, were often impenetrable, if not silly. Drawing Restraint 9 appears in line with both Barney and Björk's creative oeuvre—a symbolic representation of marriage and child birthing through physiological metamorphosis. It takes the Drawing Restraint thesis of resistance and stretches it to coupledom—mysterious romantic battling and struggle building strong, orgiastic physicality, and a meshing of souls.

Knowing the level of vomit inducing pretension, brilliance, abstruseness, and unadulterated mesmerizing beauty in Barney's previous work, impossible to ignore (though many have tried), one anticipates a bombastic cinematic event that will have the New York art world abuzz for months.